Reap the Shadows (Steel & Stone Book 4) by Annette Marie

  She let out a disgusted sigh, too tired to get really worked up about it but knowing there would be a lot of drama in her future: dealing with her father, who would be even more determined to keep her away from Ash; finding out what the hell was wrong with Quinn that he would confront Ash; and convincing Ash that he wasn’t the most horrible person in all the worlds for almost killing her.

  “Piper, you awake?”

  Forcing her tired eyes open again, she turned her head toward Kiev and saw him sitting up, watching her. He smiled.

  “You are awake,” he said cheerfully. “It’s been a few hours.”

  “Where’s Ash?” she asked.

  “Nearby,” Kiev said, frowning slightly. “I told him he should be waiting here too, but he refused. He feels pretty bad. Lyre is with him right now.”

  “It wasn’t his fault,” Piper said quickly, relieved that Ash wasn’t alone. Being alone right now would have been very bad for him. “I jumped right in front of his attack. He shouldn’t blame himself.”

  “I know,” Kiev said. “I saw the whole thing. That was pretty stupid of you.”

  Even though he’d said the last words in a light tone, she still felt their sting. She had been stupid, though she wasn’t sure what else she could have done.

  “I know it was, but it’s my father. I couldn’t let Ash skewer him.”

  “That was some crazy shit. Your father really isn’t a smart man, you know that?”

  “He used to be smart. I don’t know what’s gotten into him lately.” She closed her eyes for a moment, gathering her strength. “What did he say to Ash?”

  Kiev shifted uncomfortably. “I’m not entirely sure. I wasn’t there for the whole thing. He definitely said something about Ash ‘corrupting’ you or some other crap. He also said some shit about Samael—that Ash has been working for him all along and his supposed friendship with you is just a farce. I don’t know. He wasn’t making a lot of sense but the gist of it was pretty obvious. I was pissed on Ash’s behalf and your father wasn’t even talking about me.”

  Piper clenched her hands, fingernails digging into her palms. If she hadn’t felt as weak as a kitten, she would have leaped out of the bed and marched out of the room to find her father and tell him exactly what she thought of the bullshit he’d been spouting at Ash. He still didn’t believe that Ash had been Samael’s slave? How ridiculously stubborn was he?

  Taking a deep breath to calm down, she smiled a Kiev. “Thanks for sitting with me. I appreciate it.”

  Blushing a little, Kiev shrugged. “Ash asked me to. Seiya is resting and he was worried you might, I don’t know, start bleeding out randomly in your sleep. Or maybe he’s worried your father will show up and try to kidnap you away from us or something.”

  She huffed, cynically amused. Of all her would-be kidnappers, she’d have the best chance of survival with Quinn.

  “Where’s my father?”

  “Not sure. His brother—your uncle, I guess—took him away somewhere to calm down. The rest of the Consuls are stalking around, giving all of us mean looks. They wanted to keep us away from you but Lyre and Kindra convinced them that a healer needed to monitor you.”

  Piper wiggled her arms out from under the blanket so she could massage her temples. Just great. Now the Consuls and apprentices would have even more questions and demands about what was going on with her, Ash, and the other daemons.

  “What a mess,” she said with a sigh.

  “Could be worse. At least you didn’t die.”

  “I suppose there’s that.”

  She relaxed into the pillow, fighting the pull of exhaustion. Her eyes wanted to close again but she forcefully kept them open. She was afraid that if she closed them, all she would see was that look in Ash’s eyes. She needed to see him. She needed to tell him it hadn’t been his fault—and repeat it over and over until she convinced him.

  Kiev shifted in his seat. “I haven’t spent much time around haemons, but, well ...”

  She looked over at him, raising her eyebrows. “Well what?”

  “I don’t know how to say this,” he mumbled, “but you’re—you’re not a daemon, okay?”

  Her eyebrows climbed higher. “I am fully aware of that.”

  “It’s just that you keep making these reckless decisions like you’re trying to be extra tough. Not just with Ash earlier, but at that daemon club too and then with those Gaian soldiers. You’ve been badly hurt repeatedly but you just keep throwing yourself into danger.”

  She frowned, trying not to get offended. Kiev’s awkward sincerity was clearly fueled by his concern for her. He stared at her anxiously, waiting for her response.

  “I’m not trying to act like a daemon by being reckless,” she said. “I’m just trying to handle the emergencies that keep coming up as best I can.”

  “One of the things Raum taught me in training was to recognize the fights I can’t win. Sometimes your enemy is too strong or the situation is too out of your control and you just have to walk away from it, even if that means you fail your mission. You won’t have a second chance to succeed if you die. I don’t know if you’ve learned how to tell the difference between a tough fight and one that you shouldn’t fight at all.”

  “Are you saying I should have let Ash kill my father?”

  He gave her a hard look, his ice-blue eyes suddenly appearing much older. “One of you was going to get stabbed either way, and your father was the one who provoked the fight. Why should you suffer the consequences of what he did? How do you think your father feels that his daughter got stabbed in his place? How do you think Ash feels that he stabbed you when you weren’t even involved? Your actions were stupid and inconsiderate.”

  She blinked repeatedly, taken aback by his sudden maturity. Embarrassment quickly followed her surprise but she still didn’t think there was anything else she could have done. There was a chance she could have gotten both herself and her father out of the way, even if it hadn’t worked out like that. She would never have been able to stand there and watch her father get run through just because he’d brought it on himself.

  She sighed. “Life was a lot simpler three weeks ago when I was just the magic-less ex-apprentice who wasn’t almost getting herself or someone else killed all the time.”

  “My life was a lot simpler three weeks ago too,” he said, his seriousness melting away with a fast grin. “It’s a lot more interesting now though.”

  “How long ago did your mission go bad?” she asked.

  “Just a little less than that. I guess at this time three weeks ago, I would have been in Fairglen picking up that urgent message.”

  She twisted a little to plump her pillow. “I was in Fairglen three weeks ago too. Small world, huh?”

  The skin on the back of her neck prickled as she spoke. Three weeks ago, Kiev had been in Fairglen picking up an urgent message from a Hades spy. Three weeks ago, she had been with the Gaians in Fairglen—where she’d encountered a reaper mole. The reaper had been watching her the whole time she’d been there and had eventually confronted her when she’d tried to escape. What were the chances there were two reaper spies in a boring, half-deserted city like Fairglen?

  “Kiev,” she asked, propping herself up on one elbow. “Did that spy often have urgent reports?”

  “No, not at all. That was the first one in the three years I was his runner. Why?”

  If the spy among the Gaians was the same one Kiev carried messages for, then it made perfect sense that the reaper would have had urgent news that day: a report telling Samael that one of his most desired targets had been located.

  “That’s crazy,” she began. “That spy was—wait, did you say three years?”

  “Give or take a few months. Why?”

  She stared at him. “But—Was he stationed in Fairglen that whole time? At the same location?”

  “As far as I know.”

  Samael hadn’t even known Piper existed three years ago. There was no way that spy had been assigned to
the Gaians there for any reason relating to her. If he’d been there for that long, it explained how he was so well entrenched among the Gaians; he was a familiar face to them. But why would he be there? Why would Samael care enough about the harmless civilian branch of the Gaians to set a spy among them for years when the Gaian Corps were the real threat?

  “Why all the questions?” Kiev asked impatiently. “What’s the matter?”

  A thousand thoughts spun around and around, threatening to implode her brain. Samael. The Gaians. How were they connected? Did Samael just want to keep an eye on the Gaians since they were anti-daemon and dangerous to some of his businesses on Earth? Or was there more to it? She would have figured Samael to have been more concerned about the Ras’ slow takeover of the Consulates.

  Her entire body went cold before her brain caught up with her intuition. A terrible suspicion bloomed in her mind, eclipsing all else until she couldn’t ignore it. If she was right, they were in really big trouble.

  She sat up and flung the blankets off in one motion, startling Kiev so much he jumped to his feet.

  “What is it?” he exclaimed.

  “We need to talk to Ash,” she said. “Right now.”


  “TALK TO Ash?” Kiev repeated. “But—”

  She slid off the cot and stood, wobbling on weak legs before she caught her balance. Her body ached with fatigue but she ignored it. This couldn’t wait.

  “Do you know where he is?” she demanded.

  “I—I think he’s outside.”

  She strode past him and out into the hall. Kiev scrambled after her but didn’t try to stop her. She rushed up the stairs, out of the basement, and into the upper hall, almost crashing into Lexa as she came through the door at the end.

  “Piper, what—” the Consul began in surprise.

  “Can’t talk right now,” Piper said quickly without slowing down. Lexa called after her but she didn’t look back. All she could think about was talking to Ash, telling him about her suspicions, and seeing whether he agreed. She really hoped he didn’t agree.

  Flinging open the front door, she stepped onto the stoop. Glancing around, she saw nothing but an abandoned street bathed in the light of the setting sun.

  Kiev stopped beside her. “I’m not sure where—”

  A loud chirp made them look up. Two golden eyes peered down at them from the overhang above the door. Zwi chirped again, cocking her head to one side.

  “Zwi!” Piper exclaimed. “Where is Ash?”

  The dragonet immediately sprang down and took off at a quick trot. Piper hurried after her as Zwi led the way around the church and into the yard. Beyond the cluster of dusty, struggling trees at the back of the lot, Ash and Lyre were sitting in the shadows on a fallen tree trunk surrounded by crumbling gravestones. They watched her and Kiev approach with questioning looks.

  “Hey Piper. Kiev.” Lyre frowned at Piper. “Shouldn’t you be resting?”

  “I need to talk to you,” she told them.

  He glanced at Ash, who hadn’t met Piper’s eyes since she’d walked up. “Can’t it wait? It’s only been a few hours. Everyone is tired and—”

  “I don’t want to talk about that,” she said quickly. “We need to discuss something more important.”

  Ash’s gaze jumped to hers, eyes black and tormented.

  “More important?” Lyre repeated incredulously. “What—”

  “Just listen.” She crouched down so she was on the same level as the two guys, with Kiev hovering awkwardly behind her. “Do you remember how I told you I ran into a reaper at the Gaian facility in Fairglen?”

  They nodded.

  She gestured at Kiev behind her. “His last mission went wrong while he was picking up reports from various Hades agents, including a reaper in Fairglen. Three weeks ago, that very reaper had an extremely urgent report for Kiev to deliver—which was at the same time that I was at the Gaians’. Clearly, we’re talking about the same guy.”

  Again, Ash and Lyre nodded, though they were clearly confused about what she was getting at.

  She looked behind her at Kiev. “How long were you running messages for that agent?”

  “Around three years.”

  “Three years?” Lyre repeated, his brow crinkling.

  “Assuming we’re talking about the same guy,” Piper said, “that means Samael has had a spy among the Gaians for at least three years. Why?”

  Ash lifted one shoulder in a half shrug. “Samael has undercover operatives stationed within almost every group or organization on Earth that could possibly be a threat or a tool. His intelligence network is massive.”

  “I don’t think he was just a sleeper though,” Kiev cut in. “I don’t know much about him but I brought him orders every month.”

  Ash frowned.

  Piper pressed her hands together. “We can assume this mole probably wasn’t just sitting around observing the Gaians, right? So what was he doing that required monthly reports?” She looked from Lyre to Ash. “The Gaians have been getting all this high-tech magic weaponry lately and no one knows where it’s coming from.”

  Ash’s eyebrows shot up as he realized what she was suggesting. Lyre just frowned at her, waiting for an explanation.

  “They aren’t making those weapons themselves, which means someone is supplying them. I can’t think of a single human organization that has large supplies of military-grade equipment and weaponized magic.”

  “Hold up,” Lyre said, skepticism heavy in his voice. “Are you saying you think Samael has been supplying the Gaians? Why the hell would he do that?”

  Lyre didn’t ask how Samael was supplying weapons because he knew as well as the rest of them that Samael was more than capable of sparing some artillery. Not only did he have his own army—though how much modern technology they used, she didn’t know—but he also owned and controlled the largest daemon company in the worlds that specialized in crossing magic and technology. Chrysalis was the source of the hideous collar that had almost killed Ash in Asphodel; a few magic-loaded rocket warheads would be easy work for them.

  “The Gaians are anti-daemon,” she said, “so Samael shouldn’t want to help them, obviously. But they’ve recently become very anti-Consulate too. The Ra family controls the Consulates now. Samael can’t possibly be okay with the Ra family controlling them and by extension, the prefects.”

  Ash drummed his fingers on his knees, his eyes intent and his self-blame over the earlier incident forgotten. “The Gaians have become almost obsessed with destroying the Consulates but that doesn’t actually align with their ideals.”

  “But it aligns with Samael’s interests,” Piper said.

  “No way.” Lyre looked between them, waiting for one of them to agree that it was impossible.

  “We know Samael has at least one mole within the Gaian organization,” Ash said. “That agent may or may not have been there for three years—though we can assume he has been—and received frequent communications. We know Samael will do whatever he can to undermine the Ra family but it’s impossible to know if Samael is aware of the Ras’ infiltration of the Consulates. Knowing him, though, I’m going to guess he does.”

  He shook his head slowly. “Samael could have used his agents to influence the Gaians into attacking the Consulates. Maybe he decided to secretly supply their weaponry to make sure they could do the job effectively. But if he has his hooks that deep in the organization, then this is something he’s been building up to for more than three years and he has far more than a single mole buried in the organization. He would have been working on it for at least as long as the Ras have been spreading their poison through the Consulates.”

  “If he knew the Ras had a foothold within the Consulates,” Lyre surmised, “he would want some way to balance the power scale. He would need his own opposition. However,” he added firmly, “this is all just guesswork. You’re basing all these suspicions off a single spy and a lot of speculation.”

  “But w
hat if we’re right?” Piper asked. “Someone powerful is backing the Gaians and providing them with weapons, and it really seems like someone is influencing them into destroying the Consulates. The person backing them is probably the same person influencing them. If that person is Samael ...”

  “Even if Samael was supplying them and pushing them to wipe out the Consulates,” Lyre said, “that’s excessively shortsighted of Samael—and the warlord of Hades has always played the long game. What happens when the Consulates are gone and there’s a heavily armed organization determined to expel daemons from Earth, with no one left to oppose them?”

  “Samael’s eventual goal is to control Earth,” Ash said darkly. “If he has firm control over the Gaians, once the Consulates and prefects are out of the way—and by extension, any kind of power base for the Ra family to oppose him—he can use the Gaians however he wants to ensure control.”

  A chill whispered over her skin as she remembered what Uncle Calder had said about a war of attrition between the Underworld and Overworld. “If the Gaians destroy the Consulates and prefects, that abolishes the Ra family’s foothold here, doesn’t it? Isn’t the stalemate between Ra and Hades the only thing protecting Earth right now?”

  Ash gave a slow nod. “Unless the Ra family has a strong presence somewhere else that we don’t know about, Samael would have little resistance against whatever next steps he’s been planning. I don’t think the Ras suspect Samael’s hand in the Gaians, but they’ll still do whatever they can to eliminate any threats to the Consulates and prefects to protect the power balance they’ve established.”

  Heavy silence pressed in on them. For decades, the Ra and Hades families had worked covertly to gain the advantage, relying on espionage, moles, bribes, and hidden forces to maneuver themselves into positions of power. Both families knew that if they made an overt move to take control, the other family would immediately counter. As long as the families were unwilling to engage in direct conflict with each other, their stalemate limited the damage they could do on Earth.

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